Mae Cannon on Just Spirituality

mae cannon

Mae Elise Cannon serves as the Senior Director of Advocacy & Outreach – Middle East for World Vision USA. She is a minister, writer, and academic who cares deeply about God’s heart for the poor and the oppressed. She is the author of Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World and Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action. Prior to joining World Vision, Mae lived in East Jerusalem and served as a consultant to the Middle East for child advocacy issues for Compassion International.

KW: In Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, what is the main message you want readers to take away?

MC: In my own spiritual journey, I sometimes feel like I am not “spiritual enough” – like I don’t measure up to God’s standards – or I have somehow disappointed God by not spending enough time in the Scriptures, reflecting about profound aspects of theology, or praying for hours at a time. I wrote Just Spirituality out of this personal weakness. I wanted to learn more, and share with others, how key Christian activists and leaders stayed intimately connected with God. I wrote the book to grow in my own short-comings and to provide the opportunity for others to learn with me on the journey!

I included both renowned leaders such as Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. while at the same time telling stories of everyday followers of Jesus who are mothers and fathers, teachers, workers, and pastors. I think there is so much we can learn from heroes of the faith. At the same time, there is also so much we can learn from other another – our neighbors, our colleagues at work, our family, and others we regularly encounter in life. I think this is one of the ways we learn to live out beloved community of Christ followers together.

I hope Just Spiritualty will encourage its readers who are already engaged in works of justice, compassion, and mercy. I hope it will deepen the spiritual lives of followers of Jesus and help us to look more closely at how our intimacy with God leads us to better respond to the needs of our neighbors.

KW: What is your favorite story from the book of a faith leader engaged in social action?

MC: It’s hard to pick a favorite story from the book because many of the contemporaries I wrote about are dear friends. If I had to pick one story to tell, it would be the story of Sami Awad. Sami is a Palestinian follower of Jesus who has dedicated his life to being a peace-builder in the mist of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. More than almost anyone I know, he has embraced the message of Christ’s love – being extended not only to our family and friends – but also to our enemies. His vision of what it means to love in the midst of conflict is a beautiful reminder of the image of Jesus as the reconciler on the cross. I am honored to consider Sami a friend and partner in ministry.

KW: How has your Christian faith driven/affected your heart for the poor and oppressed?

MC: I grew up in conservative Protestant church communities – coming to Jesus through Awana in a Southern Baptist church and being baptized into the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). My family ran a business and my childhood was incredibly privileged. Living in Southern Maryland, I was exposed to significant discord around race and some of the people who most shaped my growth and development were African American people from the community.

My best friends in Middle School were my teachers (yes, I was more than a bit socially awkward)! I am deeply indebted to them for the hours they spent investing in my life. Lunch time conversations with the school librarian, Ms. Poe taught me bits and pieces about what it meant to be a middle aged African American woman in the public school system south of the Mason Dixon Line. My Middle School basketball coach, Mr. Evans challenged me, admonished me, and encouraged me all three years of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. I learned about his frustration as a black man ambitious to serve in school administration who was overlooked time and time again. Mr. Forrest, a decorated war hero who led an African American regiment in Vietnam, taught me that he could change many things; he could take someone’s life in the context of war; but he could never change the color of his skin. These leaders shaped my perspective of race and privilege. As a young white girl, being raised in Calvert County, Maryland, I worshiped alongside of African American brothers and sisters in Christ and began to learn about their journey and experiences.

When I moved to the south side of Chicago for college, I had my first real exposure to the poverty of the inner city. One night, I got picked up by a police car a I was sitting at a bus stop on a street corner on my way back to school. I told the officers I was waiting for the bus to go back to the University of Chicago. They responded with anger and vehemence, “You are lucky you aren’t dead. Nobody goes to that school who is this stupid.” Apparently it was unacceptable (and perhaps unsafe) for a young white girl to be waiting for the bus in a poor black neighborhood.

Later through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE), I began to see how the Scriptures speak to these encounters through versus such a Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58, and Matthew 25. Justice, and concern for the poor, began to have new meaning in my personal walk with Jesus.  

KW: How do you dispel the idea that social justice is not a part of biblical justice?

MC: In order to understand Christian, more specifically evangelical perspectives, on the term “social justice” it is important to look at the history of the way conservative Christians in the United States have engaged with the idea. I dedicated an entire chapter of Social Justice Handbook to look at the history of social justice from a Christian perspective. In the 19th century, it was the Christian community who was leading the way in social programs, domestic reforms, poverty assistance, and other means of meeting the needs of the poor and the outcast within society. 19th century American Christians were actively engaged in philanthropy and social justice.

However, as the 20th century progressed, the birth of the “social gospel” movement seemed to necessitate that one threw out certain core values of the conservative church – Christology, evangelism, the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture – and thus a significant rift and bifurcation occurred. On one hand, you had adherents of the social gospel movement who often held liberal theological perspectives while also embracing social action and social justice. On the other hand, you had conservative Christians who upheld beliefs in the significance of the Word of God and the pursuit of personal righteousness as the highest good for Christians to pursue. This bifurcation, some would argue, culminated in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial where, in the public sphere, Christian fundamentalism was defeated by social liberalism.

Yet when one looks at the Scriptures, biblical justice and social justice are not mutually exclusive concepts. The Bible is full of verses that address God’s heart for people and society. Jesus gave direct social mandates about how justice should be manifested in our treatment of people and communities. At the same time English translations of the Greek New Testament do us a disservice. The Greek word “dikaios” appears dozens of times in the New Testament. The most accurate translation for this word is a combination of the Old Testament concepts of both righteousness (tsadiq) and justice (mishpat). Yet when dikaios appears in the English translations it is only once (in the book of Philemon) translated as the word justice. Out of the XX times it appears, consider how we might understand Jesus’ words more holistically:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice (dikaios)… for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6).

KW: What drives you?

MC: I am not so naïve as to think that God “needs me” to make a difference in the world… and yet, I am so incredibly humbled that he invites us – all of us – to be in true community with one another and to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

Honestly, sometimes that scares me! When Jesus said, “You will do even greater things than these when the Holy Spirit comes upon you…”  I sometimes look around the church and at Christians today and wonder: Where is it happening? Where is the divine power of God being expressed in the world? Where is the Holy Spirit at work? Where is the kingdom of God being manifested?

When I think deeply about the question “Where is Jesus at work?” immediately many people and places come to mind: Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Garbage villages in Cairo, Egypt. Poor communities ridden by conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Faithful prayer meetings of followers of Jesus living under occupation in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Worship services of devout Messianic Jews in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. God is at work.

Where is Jesus? He is with the poorest of the poor. He is with the downhearted and depressed. He is with the hopeless and the outcasts. He is with prisoners and the oppressed. He is with those surrounded by conflict, violence, and lack of peace. He is there.

I want to be there, too.



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